Coming, as these readings do, just short of a year after the Bali bombings and just over two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the US, these stories that deal with suffering and how we think about suffering, faith and God warrants some careful attention.
In the letter to the Hebrews the writer speaks of being Christ being "perfected through suffering" The surrounding language speaks of "crowning glory, salvation and sanctification through suffering"
At such words we squirm! And not just at the words, the concepts are foreign, ancient, bloody and the idea of good coming from suffering is contrary to much of our experience.
Ive sat at bedsides with dying people and their families. It doesnt help to say that something good will come out of this.
Ive been there to help families deal with the turning off of life support systems, as children see loved parents in pain and perhaps worse as parents see their children suffer terribly.
How can scripture speak of good coming from suffering when our experience of suffering is so bad!
And how many people say they cant believe in a God of love because of their personal experience of tragedy, suffering and pain?
These are deep questions, questions that plague all people, in all corners of our globe and throughout history. These are the sort of questions that reverberate through us in the dead of night, that shake the core of our being when we are confronted with terrible suffering. What does God have to do with suffering?
Does faith and righteousness result in a blest life?
What can a person do in the face of calamity: Bali, the Twin Towers of New York, death in the family, loss of all one holds dear? How does faith handle this part of the human condition?
The book of Job was written to reflect on these questions.
But whenever dealing with Job and the problem of suffering a few matters need to be cleared away before really engaging with the story and its meaning.
The first of these matters concerns what sort of book we have here. Is it a piece of sad personal history, shared for the benefit of others, or a folk tale - the stuff legends are made of, there to promote a stoic approach to lifes problems or is it a piece of wisdom literature, like a Greek tragedy, written to explore darker elements of our human situation.
The latter option makes more sense to me, and to much of modern scholarship, especially when you realize that 39 of the 42 chapters are written in finely balanced Hebrew poetry with a highly sophisticated structure. And the fact that there is no reference to time, place, or any datable person in the whole work, it happens "in the east".
Next is the matter of who the characters are and what they represent. We have God, supreme being, creator, awesome mysterious, all powerful, and here in this story - the sovereign of the "heavenly court". There is Job, the once prosperous and always faithful man who suffers an unimaginable series of calamities - he losses his seven sons and three daughters, the Sabeans take his 500 yoke of oxen, his 500 donkeys, fire from heaven burned up the 7000 sheep and many of his servants, the Chaldeans take his 3000 camels, more servants and finally job is afflicted with terrible sores.
Why does all this happen to him? That leads us to the most difficult character, the object of much lurid speculation over the centuries, that is, to the role of Satan.
Some facts might help us here. The book of Job has the very first reference to this character in the Bible. He comes in with no explanation. He turns up in Gods heavenly court with the other heavenly beings and God has a chat with him.
This is clearly not the personification of evil or opponent to God that some later writers think of when they use the name, Satan. It was another, poet, Milton who popularized the notion of Satan as a fallen angel, in Paradise Lost.
The name satan in Hebrew literally reads, "the accuser". So appropriately, accusation is his role in this saga. "Yes but", he says to God concerning Job, the apple of Gods eye. He accuses Job of being a fairweather friend of God.
So the satan accuses, but God is pictured as in control all the time. Nothing happens without Gods say so and the origin of all power in the story is clearly with God.
The accuser, "ha satan" is a literary device who provides the tension in the drama.
Job has friends who come to "help" him - they represent different philosophical points of view, but its Mrs Job Id like spend some time with.
She has two short lines. One question and one piece of advice.
"Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die."
For generations, the cry of Mrs. Job has been contrasted with the "patience" of Mr. Job. Her crisis of faith in the face of her anguish has been held up as a negative example and her one line has condemned her to the role of the "faithless one" down through the ages.
Perhaps we do Mrs. Job an injustice, and I propose that not only was her crisis of faith normal, but necessary to her spiritual growth. Mrs. Job too has lost 500 oxen, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, her servants, 7 sons and 3 daughters. Yet even in the midst of what must have been mind-numbing grief, there is no record of her questioning or objecting to the theology of her world.
In Mrs. Job's world, her tragedy would clearly be blamed on her failure before God. The common assumption of that anguished cry, "what have I done to deserve this?" has very ancient roots. It is only when Job himself is struck with what appears to be leprosy and becomes an untouchable do we see evidence of Mrs. Job's primal anger at God. No one could expect a person in her position to say, "well lets see what good will come out of this", or "well dear, you know suffering will only make us better people." NO!!
So perhaps if we enter into the drama ourselves and hear what just might have been. Imagine the apocryphal archaeologists have just unearthed an interesting letter, a letter from Mrs Job writing home to her Mother.
Dear Mum, Im writing this to you from our spare tent. The house has collapsed. I know youve always thought I was "so lucky", so "blessed by God" and that you always thought Job was a little too good to be true. Do you know I actually thought you might have been jealous of me at one stage. Well, no longer.
When I say the house has collapsed, mum, I mean the whole household!
Its all gone mum, your grandchildren, every last sheep and goat.
People blamed the tragedy on my failure before God . Can you imagine that! I must have done something they said, Job bloody goody two shoes couldnt have! When Job was struck with what I think might be leprosy, I spat the dummy, mum.
I was so angry! The God we worshipped and honoured was no longer operating from the same page of the rule book.
I said to Job, "We don't really know this God like we thought we did. Your "integrity" no longer appears to matter".
"Curse God and die", I said to him.
He just ignored me of course - what would I know?
But I cant go on just believing like I used to as if nothing had happened.
Job just sits around philosophising with some of his old friends. Ive a feeling he might be questioning God too by now, feeling less certain about everything, but he wont share his feelings with me.
Meanwhile Ive been looking for some other help, Ive been reading an old book by, J. B. Phillips called "Your God's Too Small" he talks about the spiritual consequences of a God who has failed us. (I wonder if hes been burnt as a heretic yet) "Such a god is, of course, he says, in the highest degree inadequate, I agree, Amen to that Mr Philips. He says its impossible for people who have persuaded themselves that God has failed, to worship and serve Him in any but a grudging and perfunctory spirit" (p.59 if youd like to look that up in your copy). My dictionary didnt have perfunctory in it, by the way - if yours has, let me know - sounds good to me. It is more common, he says, and self-protective to turn from worship altogether. Well thats where I was going mum," curse God, I sure did!"
Meanwhile Job goes on with this relationship with God, which he says has always sustained him, but I have to reevaluate my faith, mum.
If the God I believed in is not present, is there a God? If I follow all the rules that order the world and its failed to protect me from grief, sickness, humiliation what then? How can I know what I should do ?
And can you believe, for the first time in my life I have to acknowledge my absolute vulnerability to a God I thought I had worked out, a God I could sort of control through being a faithful keeper of His law.
Do you know, mum,... I think I may be getting onto something here. Its always good to talk to you.
Hope you and dad are well, hows the lumbago by the way?
Kind regards, Ill let you know how it all works out.
Your loving daughter, Mrs Job."
Perhaps Mrs. Job might be able to help us too, as her spiritual growth means she has to discard her legalism. Just following all the rules doesnt guarantee a life of smooth sailing. She needs to move foreword to discover a connection with God, a faith founded in relationship with a God who knows suffering too, a God who is there with her through it.
The sort of feelings of betrayal and abandonment by God felt by Mrs Job are echoed in the central story of the New Testament and continue to affect people even 2,000 years later. This is a timeless heartache as well as a spur to growth and action.
Elie Wiesel, the Jewish novelist and survivor of the Nazi death camps, faulted Job for cutting off his argument with God. Even if Job does experience divine grace, Wiesel does not think that the experience of God's love should obscure God's concern for justice. In ancient Israel, God was proclaimed as having a passion for justice. She says we must continue to call God to account, cry out to God, even bring God to trial. We do so not out of human arrogance, but out of biblical faith.
As Mrs Job speaks out, "curse God." When things are so bad, Elie Wiesel says, demand to know why, ask for justice.
The Bible reminds us in a multitude of ways, God does not want sacrifice and legalism in the place of a relationship based on responsive and heart-felt love. This relationship between us and God should foster a love that sometimes must cry out in pain, a love that must seek answers and be open to growth.
The Book of Job warns against an ego-centred piety, which is filled with its own self- righteousness. It is against a mentality of ledger book justice where everything happens according to what we deserve.
It may be true that good can come from suffering, but only if we are thoroughly engaged with the injustice of it.
It may be true that good can come from suffering, but I believe it is heresy to suggest that God intends the suffering.
It may be true that good can come from suffering, but not from others pointing the finger at your fault.
We may be somewhat helped in our long and at times painful journey towards perfection, through suffering, but only when we are open to growing in the God who journeys with us.
"For in this, says the writer to the Hebrews, we are brothers and sisters of Christ."